Richard Bean’s phone-hacking comedy made a big splash at the National Theatre when it opened, days after the Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks verdicts, having been put together in top secret conditions so as not to prejudice their trial.
In a satire that is, of course, entirely fictional and unrelated to the great Hackmageddon in Wapping, we are flies on the newsroom wall of top tabloid The Free Press.
Here, hot young news editor Paige Britain (Lucy Punch: sexy, evil, and sharp as a suicidal clergyman’s razor), will screw over or screw everyone – including the PM –to get to the top. And it’s all for our entertainment: ‘That’s what we do,’ purrs Britain to the quivering audience. ‘We destroy people’s lives on your behalf.’
Dodgy MPs and paedo-bashing hacks are sleazy-peasy targets. And this could’ve been preachier-than-thou in the hands of any writer other than comic controversialist Richard Bean, whose last NT state-of-the-nation comedy ‘England People Very Nice’ was invaded by Muslims protesting at its outspoken gags about ethnic stereotypes.
Here, he cleverly skirts the potential legal minefield by skewering the culture of tabloids, rather than relying solely on near-the-knuckle caricatures of the real-life phone hackers.
What makes this energetic mess of a play such fun is the feeling that Bean loves the wit and chutzpah of the redtops and, while just about remembering to indict their human consequences, he positively revels in the feast of filth that they create. In this off-colour office comedy, jokes float like turds on a tide of gleeful cynicism and horny power-seeking. And, if and when Coulson and Brooks get back to secretly running the country, Bean’s penned a great series of escalatingly preposterous headlines on the theme of ‘Immigrants eat Queen’s swans’ that they should really take note of.
On a more serious note (and there aren’t many of those), Bean’s play makes the important and accurate point that, as morally repellent as it is to hack the voicemail of a paedophile’s victim, the real issues at stake for Britain here are power and corruption: the special relationship between police, press and politicians where the acquisition of one leads directly to the enjoyment of the other.
Nicholas Hytner’s buzzing direction is spot on. The live cast is excellent, especially Dermot Crowley as the newspaper’s amnesiac gun-toting Irish proprietor, a kind of cross between He Who Must Not Be Named and Martin McGuinness. And Aaron Neil’s pompous dickhead Met chief is mocked in witty filmed YouTube-style mashups where he gets tasered by a flying pig. And the whole shebang has probably benefited from its transfer to the West End where it's no longer completely preaching to the choir, and one or two tabloid readers might actually see it. It's yesterday's news - but this story will run and run.